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National August Wilson New Voices Competition Crowns Winners in Pittsburgh

By SHARON EBERSON

The spirit of August Wilson permeated the O’Reilly Theater Monday night, as the monologue and design competition that bears his name came home to Pittsburgh for the first time. 

The August Wilson New Voices Competition – formerly the August Wilson Monologue Competition – crowned winners culled from more than 1,000 high school students, representing five regions: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. 

The finalists crowned on Monday in the monologue contest and winners of cash prizes were:

In first place, Layla Mack of Martha Ellen Stilwell School of the Arts, as Rose from Fences, and first runner-up, Terrance Tate of Heritage High School as Troy from Fences ($2,000), both from the Atlanta competition; and from Los Angeles, 2nd runner-up Yenay Cuevas of Ramón C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, as Vera from Seven Guitars.

Derrick Sanders (right) introduces the August Wilson New Voices Competition winners, with other finalists and the three monologue judges (left) celebrating their work at the O’Reilly Theater on Monday, April 29, 2024. (Image: Demeatria Boccella)

Representing Pittsburgh and the Bill Nunn Theatre Outreach Program among the 10 monologue finalists were Layla Sewell-Wilson (Pittsburgh CAPA 6–12) as Molly Cunningham from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Sydney Pellegrino (Obama Academy of International Studies) as Rena from Jitney.

Judges for the competition were multidisciplinary theater artist and head of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company, Mark Clayton Southers; actor/director/writer Javon Johnson (a Pitt grad you may know as Richard Hallsen in Tyler Perry’s The Oval on BET); and August Wilson’s daughter, Sakina Ansari-Wilson.

Ms. Wilson gave an inspiring speech about her father and how the young voices heard in the competition honored the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s legacy, while allowing them to find their own voices. 

First- and second-place winners of $2,000 and $1,000, respectively, in the design competition were Janeci Correa (Chicago High School for the Arts) and J’Maria Stamps (DRW College Prep), both from Chicago. Judges for the relatively new category were award-winning designers Susan Tsu and Courtney O’Neill.

The finalists spent the weekend in Pittsburgh, where they were given a full dose of August Wilson’s legacy, including the August Wilson House Block Party, celebrating the playwright and poet’s birthday. 

An exhilarating video highlighted their inspiring experiences while visiting the Hill District and other landmarks that showcased how Wilson’s spirit lives on the city that is the setting in nine of the 10 plays in his American Century Cycle.

The evening was launched with a video of Constanza Romero Wilson, August Wilson’s widow and executive director of the August Wilson Legacy, LLC, who was unable to attend but cheered on the competitors from afar.

Previous national finals were held at Broadway’s August Wilson Theater and in Chicago. Derrick Sanders, host of the evening and AWNV national director, who took over the competition from founders Todd Kreidler and Kenny Leon, is a University of Pittsburgh graduate, and was excited to bring the national competition to the city that inspired Wilson’s works.

Pittsburgher Kreidler, Wilson’s close confidant and colleague, was inspired by Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Shakespeare Monologue & Scene Contest, when exploring ways of putting Wilson’s words in the mouths of current and future generations.

“By bringing the competition to Pittsburgh, we allow students across the country to experience the rich cultural history of Pittsburgh, as well as to connect with August on a deeper and more personal level–through his archives, his childhood home, and much of the community that inspired his work.” 

Sanders acknowledged the sponsorship and support of the Heinz Endowments, Hillman Foundation, Goodman Theatre of Chicago, Gilded Road Productions and August Wilson Legacy LLC, and the cooperation of the August Wilson House, August Wilson African American Cultural Center, Pittsburgh Public Theater and the August Wilson Archives at Pitt for bringing the national competition to Pittsburgh,

In closing, two of Wilson’s disciples took the stage – Johnson, noting his first acting role was as Cory Maxson in Fences, talked of the eternal void left by the deaths of Chadwick Boseman and Wilson, followed by Southers, who held a mic to his phone, so the final voice was that of August Wilson, reciting one of his poems.